True Spies Episode 106: Hidden Hand
+++WARNING: A word of warning this episode contains references to violence. If you would prefer not to hear that, you might want to try one of the episodes in our archive.+++
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their secret skills? And what would you do in their position?
RIC PRADO: I heard this 'Pssssst' and it was this skinny guy hiding behind the bushes. And he tells me: “They're planning to kill you tonight. When you go to sleep, they're going to come and try to kill you.”
NARRATOR: This is True Spies. The rural borderlands of Nicaragua and Honduras in the 80s are dangerous places. The site of a vicious civil war between right wing rebel groups and Nicaragua's socialist Sandinista government. And on this day, in this small frontier town, there isn't much sign of law enforcement when some of the rebel commanders let power go to their heads.
RIC PRADO: What happened was, two of the senior sub commanders were not moral guys. They started going into town, hiring prostitutes, drinking. They started stealing cattle. We got word that some elements of this camp had ‘gone rogue’.
NARRATOR: The CIA secretly fund and support the rebels but this morning a decision has been taken to bring one of these rogue commanders to heel. The Agency’s Enrique ‘Ric’ Prado a.k.a ‘Major Alex’ of the Honduran Army has been tasked with the job.
RIC PRADO: And the tipping point was when we heard that they had raped the wife of another sub-commander that had opposed them, and that they had killed him. So we flew to this little village and said: “You go tell him that Major Alex is here and that I need to talk to him now.” So here he comes in this civilian Jeep with his driver, who's his bodyguard.
NARRATOR: This rogue commander is known locally as Kara Mara which translates to something like ‘Commander Bad Face’ in English. Not an easy guy to take down to the station. In the village street, the two sides square off against each other.
RIC PRADO: And he gets out and he has his pistol on him. And I had in my car just a shortened version of the M16. I had that slung over my shoulder. And I had my sidearm and my ever-present grenade. I always carried too many grenades in my pants pockets. And he came over and I started talking to him and I said: “Look, I am guaranteeing your safety back, but you need to answer for some of the allegations that are being thrown at you. You'll get a fair trial, but you're coming back with me.”
NARRATOR: One of those moments that can go one of two ways.
RIC PRADO: He looked at his driver. And his driver reached under the seat and grabbed an Uzi and put it on his lap. And he was maybe 30 yards away. He was just at the edge of the park.
NARRATOR: Commander Bad Face still hasn't moved.
RIC PRADO: So what happened was, I told Kara Mara, I said: “Listen, don't make a really bad mistake here.” And I unslung my rifle and brought it up to his crotch. And I pointed at his crotch. And I said: “You know me. If your guy starts to shoot, I'm taking you out right here and there.”
NARRATOR: When he enrolled in the early 1980s, Ric Prado didn’t fit the profile of a typical CIA operative.
RIC PRADO: At the time, the Agency did not have in its paramilitary ranks anybody who was native Spanish speaking and could pass for something other than a tragically white gringo.
NARRATOR: Ric may not have been another ‘tragically white CIA gringo’ but he was an absolute believer in his own debt of loyalty to the United States and in the Cold War mission of the CIA to fight communism across the world - using whatever techniques the Agency deemed appropriate. But America wasn't his first country. His family is Cuban and he was born in Cuba.
RIC PRADO: My dad was a cowboy before he married my mom and so I had a horse before I had a bicycle. My father liked to shoot guns and I was around guns. When I was six years old, they bought me my first ‘Dacey’ Winchester-looking BB gun. And so it was a very happy childhood. We lived in a good size town, but nonetheless, still a town. And it was at the foot of the Escambray Mountains, which is where Che Guevara actually had his rebel stronghold. So it was a very free, very happy period for us.
NARRATOR: But Cuba in the early ‘50s is not a peaceful place. It’s led by a pro-American government, being challenged by left wing rebels like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. And one night, when Enrique is about seven years old, that conflict comes right to the Prado's front door.
RIC PRADO: Yeah, because we were so near the Escambray Mountains, which were the stronghold. My town was a target of harassment. These guys that were in the mountains were coming down and, once in a while, they would do raids. Well, this one particular time, my mom and dad had gone to the capital of the province for dinner. And probably about 100 yards north of my house was a bar that was frequented by police officers and military folks. And, all of a sudden, the ruckus broke out outside. We could hear yelling and some screaming and then a couple of isolated gunshots going back and forth.
NARRATOR: Young, gun obsessed Ric, wakes and jumps out of bed.
RIC PRADO: So I ran to the window and was fascinated with the sound of gunfire and wanted to see what was happening. I could see people running and everything else. But what I could not see was that, just below me, was a rebel with a fully automatic weapon.
NARRATOR: One of Che Guevara's troops trying to ambush off duty police or soldiers at the bar across the street.
RIC PRADO: And, about that time, he let loose with that twice. And I was frozen. Not in a bad way or in a scared way. It actually was exhilarating watching the shells kind of cascade down the windows.
NARRATOR: It's a moment that changes him forever.
RIC PRADO: That was my first real encounter with shots being fired in anger. I think that began forging the mettle that is my character.
NARRATOR: On that night, the rebels slip back into the forest where they came from. But the changes are only just beginning. After Castro's forces take power, things begin to alter for the whole family. Ric's father's business is confiscated by the government. Then Ric's name appears on a list of children to be sent to Russia for Communist indoctrination. So the Prados make a life-changing decision: to give up everything and start a new life in America. But there's a catch. Only 10-year-old Ric is granted a visa to make the trip. The family heads to Havana airport.
RIC PRADO: I mean, that is an unforgettable experience in my mind. My dad was driving us in his ‘57 Pontiac to the airport, and then when you made your way to the actual check-in point - after you got your tickets - they had this thing called The Fishbowl because it was all made of glass. And I'm an only child. I have no brothers or sisters. And I could see my mom and my dad on the other side of the glass. I looked back through that glass and I saw my mom crying and my dad biting his lip.
NARRATOR: In the States, Ric is enrolled in an orphanage and is eventually reunited with his parents when they too manage to escape a few years later, leaving everything behind. The family settled in Miami and began to make a new life for themselves. But Ric never forgets how much he and his family lost in the Revolution. And never forgets that it was the United States that welcomed him instead.
RIC PRADO: That was no picnic either but it toughened me and it also gave me a sense of belief.
NARRATOR: Growing up in Miami, Ric is an athletic teenager. He learns martial arts, takes up Scuba diving, and dabbles with street gangs and petty crime. Learning skills that prove useful for his eventual career in the Agency.
RIC PRADO: Part of it is awareness. You’ve got to be aware of who your friends are, who your enemies are. If you're going to get in a fight, you’ve got to look around and make sure the cops are not around - either to get arrested or get beat up. Camaraderie, joining a team, being part of something bigger than just yourself, being different. I think all that played into the molding there.
NARRATOR: In his 20s, he joins the Army Reserves, gets training as a military diver and parachutist, and begins to dream of life as an international secret agent. He even applied directly to the CIA.
RIC PRADO: I got a very polite note back from them saying basically: “Look, we're not hiring. We're firing. We are really cutting down post-Vietnam.” There was huge attrition to both the military and our federal agency.
NARRATOR: But by the early 1980s, the US government was increasingly concerned about a new perceived threat: the growth of socialist rebel groups throughout Central America, groups that model themselves after Castro's Cuba, look to the USSR for support, and are hostile to the US. The Cold War is ‘hotting up’ again.
RIC PRADO: And most of them, fomented by the surrogate system of the Soviet Union to Cuba, Cuba to Nicaragua, and then Nicaragua to Salvador and Guatemala and places beyond.
NARRATOR: In Nicaragua, one of these socialist groups, the Sandinistas, has already taken power. But After the disaster of the Vietnam War, the US can't be seen to interfere directly in these conflicts so President Ronald Reagan began to consider a different kind of involvement. Covert. Secret. The so-called 'hidden hand'.
RIC PRADO: So he started this mandate for the agency which ended up being called the Contra Program, meaning Contra revolutionaries.
NARRATOR: The name Contras sticks: right wing, anti-socialist guerrilla forces funded secretly by Washington. And the CIA needs undercover operatives who can blend into these groups, people who won't be suspected of working for Washington, people who aren't tragically white gringos. Ric's old application resurfaces.
RIC PRADO: You remember that Cuban kid wherever he was? And they tracked me down. And again, I believe in fate, I believe in a God-given mission. So when they called me up and said: “Look, are you interested?” I said: “Well, I only have one question for you. Is it a long-term or a short-term contract? “And they said: “No, this is long term.” And I said: "I'll take it.” And they said: “Do you even want to know what it is?” I said: “No, I don't care. I'll take it for the long term. And, you need a guy like me. I'm there.”
NARRATOR: In some episodes of True Spies, we hear of agents going through months or years of specialist training for their undercover assignments. Not in this case.
RIC PRADO: I got some briefings, some polygraph tests, medical, physicals, and all that kind of stuff. And I was given an alias and a couple of weeks later I was at the Nicaraguan border.
NARRATOR: What impresses the Agency is his background and his motivation.
RIC PRADO: I was a little kid when the same communist monster that was now devouring Nicaragua - in Central America, and beyond - came to my childhood in Cuba. Now I was in a position to help fight it.
NARRATOR: He's given a new identity 'Captain Alex' later 'Major Alex' a respected soldier in the Honduran Army, which is friendly to the Contras. Ric’s mission: to embed with the Contras in the jungles between Nicaragua and Honduras, and provide them with weapons, equipment and military training. Often on his own with the rebels. And life in the bush isn't easy.
RIC PRADO: You can never forget those kinds of experiences. I walked into the first camp and the living conditions were abysmal. I mean, these guys had nothing, a few had boots that they had recovered from the Sandinistas. They had no uniforms. You saw the guys walking around in flip flops and shorts, ankle deep in mud mosquitoes, no medical treatment, malnourished. Very little logistic support to any of this.
NARRATOR: This does not look like a force that can hold back the tide of socialism across central America.
RIC PRADO: And you're going to train them in patrolling, communications, RPG-7s, a .50 cal.
NARRATOR: RPG-7 that’s a rocket propelled grenade. And a .50 cal is a heavy machine gun. All special gifts from Washington D.C.
RIC PRADO: Some of that stuff I had to learn because part of my cover was that I was an experienced trainer. You can't go in there and go: “Look, I know how to shoot guns, man, but I've never done what you're doing.” You can't do that. And, I was the only CIA officer in those 10 Contra camps for the first 14 months of the program.
NARRATOR: Even with their new hardware behind them, the Sandinista enemy can sense the weakness of the Contras. They are now on the offensive. Ric's first taste of combat comes a few weeks later as he is delivering mortar ammunition to one Contra camp.
RIC PRADO: And that's what was in the truck, mortar rounds, and mortars. But unbeknownst to them, the Sandinistas had gotten close to them and they opened up from the brush, started shooting at us, and hit our truck. And everybody dives for cover. Everybody grabs their gun.
NARRATOR: It's Ric's first firefight although only he knows that. His hosts are looking to him for guidance. Rounds from the Sandinistas start landing closer and closer to his position.
RIC PRADO: I mean, let's face it. The Sandinistas were not passive.
NARRATOR: But for the first time, the new tactical training begins to kick in. Ric leads a counterattack.
RIC PRADO: And we started returning fire. Fairly efficiently, as a matter of fact. My guys were, by then, a little better trained. So the Sandinistas retreated to their camp, which was literally 300-400 yards from where we were at. We're not talking miles.
NARRATOR: So close they can almost hear the enemy. It's only a matter of time before another ambush.
RIC PRADO: So I decided to immediately institute the training for the mortars. And we trained them on the mortars and we sent out patrols that could go out and actually act as spotters to see where our stuff was hitting.
NARRATOR: This time, Ric's men take the fight to the Sandinistas using the new American-bought mortars to cut off the enemy's escape routes.
RIC PRADO: And we leveled their camp. They left and they never came back. So, I was happy with how I reacted under fire but I was never worried about it in my mind. I had a pretty strong conviction that if I was in harm's way, I was going to make it out or take a lot of them with me, so that was the mentality.
NARRATOR: As the months go by, the new training and equipment continue to produce results. Conditions begin to improve in the three or four camps that ‘Captain Alex’ regularly visits. And he becomes a trusted ally of the Contras.
RIC PRADO: The respect was there. The appreciation was there. They were extremely grateful. My boss had taught me from day one, he says: “Look, your job is to go in there, make them like you and make them depend on you. They have to understand that you are the umbilical cord to any training or any logistics support that they're going to have. And so I had a really great relationship with all these guys. I was Santa Claus.
NARRATOR: Not all the gifts from Santa are successful. Sniper rifles for example.
RIC PRADO: They were hunters and most of them were good shots with very little coaching. They became much better. So, I ordered some with a scope so I could teach them how to take out people from a distance.
NARRATOR: That's very different from the normal Contra strategy, going in all guns blazing.
RIC PRADO: I told them, I said: “Look, every time you do one of these raids. You're blowing 3,000 rounds, you're killing two Sandinistas. And one of you guys is either getting killed or wounded.
NARRATOR: In fact, Ric had learned something watching Castro and Che Guevara’s rebels outside his bedroom window.
RIC PRADO: Guerillas don't fight fair fights. So, I started inculcating them, the art of harassment going in. And my concept was: You go to a camp where the Sandinistas are you. You bring two or three guys. And you shoot the first guy that goes in the latrine. The first guy that gets up in the morning and goes to the latrine, you shoot them right off his butt.
NARRATOR: But that simply isn't the Contra way.
RIC PRADO: The machismo, that just didn't feel right to them. It was like, we would stand across from each other, and no protection, just shooting at each other. To them, that machismo of attacking the camp, that hands-on kind of stuff that they kept gravitating to, a guerrilla unit cannot operate against conventional units, in a strength versus strength capability; hit and run in ambushes and harassments; demoralize the enemy lower. The enemy's numbers make them waste ammunition, frustrate them. And little by little, you take their terrain.
NARRATOR: And ‘Captain Alex’ receives a message from HQ.
RIC PRADO: Probably, about a year into the program, my headquarters came in with an instruction for our group to come up with an operation that elevated the harassment to something they could not ignore.
NARRATOR: Something beyond jungle skirmishes. Raising the stakes.
RIC PRADO: Headquarters wanted to do something that would be a good left hook to the jaw kind of thing.
NARRATOR: Ric thinks back to some of the conversations he's had with Contra fighters. In one camp, a man had noticed a cap that he was wearing.
RIC PRADO: I had on a baseball hat with my scuba badge on it with my jump wings. And he goes: “You a scuba diver? I am also. We have about six guys here who are lobster divers and commercial divers. So we know how to strap on a tank and scuba dive.” And I said: “Well, man, well, welcome to the brotherhood.”
NARRATOR: It's a conversation that took place in a Contra camp that was different from the others staffed mostly by fighters from the Miskito indigenous group.
RIC PRADO: Those are Native Americans. They are recognized by our Native Americans as Native Americans, even though they're heavily inter-married with black slaves that washed ashore during the pirate days.
NARRATOR: The Sandinista socialist government turned out to be as prejudiced against the Miskitos as every other Nicaraguan government had been so far. And that was why many Miskitos had joined the Contras.
RIC PRADO: I fell in love with them. They were natural fighters. Extremely dedicated. They’ve been fighting for autonomy forever so they make really good guerrillas.
NARRATOR: And now one of them had revealed that there was a group of professional scuba divers already in the Miskito ranks, raising the possibility of a completely new type of clandestine operation.
RIC PRADO: And I came up with this idea of blowing up the Puerto Cabezas pier. Puerto Cabezas pier was the umbilical cord for the resupply from Russia via Cuba that was coming into Nicaragua. All the military assistance, fuel ammunition, medical supplies, uniforms, those were all coming through Puerto Cabezas.
NARRATOR: The problem is, it’s deep in Sandinista controlled territory. Heavily defended.
RIC PRADO: So I told my bosses. I said: “Well, there's only one way of doing this and that's scuba.”
NARRATOR: An underwater attack from the sea, attaching explosives to the pier.
RIC PRADO: You have to get guys that are trained to do that. And I can train them. I'm a military diver. And they flew it up the flagpole and headquarters bought off on it.
NARRATOR: 'Captain Alex' goes to work.
RIC PRADO: So I did my selection of the six guys, and ran them through some PT. A week or so into it, two of them said: “Ah, this isn't for us. You're too hard on us.” So I was left with a core of four really hard dudes and a boat captain.
NARRATOR: Welcome to scuba boot camp.
RIC PRADO: So I took these guys to an island in the northeast part of Honduras. I was there for a month training these guys in compass swims, how to attach explosive devices under a small pier. And the requirement to my headquarters was: “Guys, you got to provide me with whatever it is you want me to put here.”
NARRATOR: And the Agency supplies some bespoke equipment to carry the explosives.
RIC PRADO: They came up with a special torpedo-shaped device that was buoyant, so it was swimmable. You don't want it bringing you up, but it cannot be a dead weight that you're dragging it on the ground either.
NARRATOR: The team will swim underwater with the device and attach the explosives to the pier. Every detail is mapped out.
RIC PRADO: We also timed it so it would be late at night. One, because we didn't want to be discovered, but also we didn't want to kill people. We didn't want to kill civilians or anybody that was working, on those boats or on the pier.
NARRATOR: Navigating long distances in the pitch dark is challenging even for experienced divers so a further device is created.
RIC PRADO: We made these boards. They're called attack boards and it has a depth gauge and a compass. So, what you do is, when you get into the water, you're looking at your target. You're looking at those lights. You look at your compass: “Okay? This is 180 degrees or 190 degrees. That's where I have to go.”
NARRATOR: Headquarters even supply primitive, infrared night-vision goggles to allow the boat pilot to locate the divers in the water after the mission. It feels like everything has been thought of. On the chosen night, the Miskito scuba team boards a small boat and motors out into enemy waters. Ric is with them but has orders not to be part of the bomb delivery squad. Too high a risk of revealing the hidden hand. It's a long journey into the dark, but eventually, the port appears on the horizon. One last check of the kit and the divers slip quietly into the water.
RIC PRADO: Yeah. And the responsibility of going into harm's way is your own, personal liability but when you send people into harm's way, there's a very heavy burden for the outcome. So it teaches you to sweat the details, making sure that we had done everything possible to ensure that they could come back.
NARRATOR: There's nothing to do except wait for the team to return.
RIC PRADO: You have one guy leading, and then two of the guys supporting him there also have attack boards. And the fourth guy is the one who is actually pulling the device.
NARRATOR: Then scanning the water with the infra-red goggles the boat captain spots something in the water. All four divers are pulled safely back aboard. Mission complete. The device is timed to detonate later that night after the boat is back in Honduran waters.
RIC PRADO: Three days later, or when I was back, we got the satellite photos of the damage the device had done on the pier. It blew the top part of the pier into smithereens, including everything that was used to pump the oil and fuel, so it was a substantial blow to them. And I tell you, my chest swelled to where it broke my shirt. That was a very, very, very proud moment.
NARRATOR: But some aspects of the Contras’ war are more shameful. Throughout the conflict, the Contras are documented to commit numerous human rights abuses against civilians and prisoners. A report by the group that will later become Human Rights Watch documents “kidnappings of civilians, summary executions and attacks on health facilities” among other crimes. The Sandinistas are brutal too, using torture and killings against their opponents. But American support for the Contras is becoming an open secret and increasingly controversial.
RIC PRADO: These guys were freedom fighters. Were there isolated cases of people going above and beyond? It's human. You've had CIA folks that have betrayed their country and sold out to the Russians. You have the FBI, senior guys that have defected. Those are the minority. Those are the exceptions. You can not taint a whole movement or a whole culture just by the anomalies.
NARRATOR: And one of Ric's most dangerous missions is to deal with some of those ‘anomalies’. A popular commander in one of the Contra camps has been ousted in an internal coup. And his place has been taken by a duo of commanders who have particularly sadistic, criminal reputations.
RIC PRADO: And here's where I think my streetwise aspects really came into play. I knew how to deal with rough people. And I grew up with rough people.
NARRATOR: As Ric is now one of the most experienced CIA operatives on the ground, the Agency has a request for him.
RIC PRADO: So they told me: “Can you go out there and bring these guys back?” I go: “Of course, yeah, I'll do it.”
NARRATOR: Among many crimes, the rogue Contra commanders are accused of murdering a rival officer and raping his wife. As we heard at the start of this episode, Ric confronts one of them, Commander Bad Face, in the streets of a small town near the camps. It develops into an armed standoff with the commander's bodyguard waving an Uzi submachine gun and Ric pointing his rifle at the commander. An open confrontation between the CIA and their allies, the Contras. One side will have to back down if bloodshed is to be avoided.
RIC PRADO: I said: “Listen, don't make a really bad mistake here because you know me. If your guy starts to shoot, I'm taking you out right here and there. Look, you will be tried. You will be held accountable for some of the allegations. And if you're free, you'll come back. But you need to do this.”
NARRATOR: And what was Ric really thinking?
RIC PRADO: If he came up with a gun, that I was going to kill the son of a bitch.
NARRATOR: For a moment nobody moves. And then the Commander makes a gesture.
RIC PRADO: So he went like this with his hands and told the guy: “Put it away. Put it away because this guy is serious.” So, he got on the helicopter. I took his gun away and flew him back.
NARRATOR: But Ric has been tasked with arresting two rogue commanders. The day before, he went searching for the other one, Commander Krill. Krill can't be so easily isolated. He is at the Contra camp. He has taken over, surrounded by fighters who answer only to him. As usual, Ric is helicoptered in. He has just two men with him for support. A Contra trainee and a young Honduran captain.
RIC PRADO: Great guy, but he wasn't much of a fighter.
NARRATOR: They approach the camp.
RIC PRADO: So we landed outside this, not even a village. It was like a little out-cropping of huts. I had to radio ahead and told the commander to meet me on the outskirts because the helicopter had to stay clear of the camp in order not to compromise it, if nothing else.
NARRATOR: This meeting place means the commander is separated from most of his troops but Commander Krill doesn't turn up alone.
RIC PRADO: And the commander was there with this big, gorilla bodyguard. And I sat down with them and I said: “Look, we need to talk. There are some allegations of things going on.” And I could see them starting to squirm. And we’re armed. They're armed also. And they had some guys nearby, but he was just there with his bodyguard.
NARRATOR: Ric decides to play on the Commander's sense of hospitality. A host's duties. Remember, on paper, these two men are on the same side.
RIC PRADO: So I told him, I told the bodyguard. I said: “Listen, my stomach is really bad. Here's a few pesos. Will you go to the little kiosk over there? Just get us some, some Pepsi's or Cokes or whatever they have in a bottle. Because I'm sick. I'm feeling bad.” So he got to look at the Commander, and the commander said: “Yeah, go ahead.”
NARRATOR: The bodyguard walks off. Commander Krill is now on his own. The trap is set. As soon as he disappeared into the little town, I grabbed the commander and put them on the helicopter. And I told him: “Look, I am guaranteeing your safety, but you have to answer for these allegations and this is not a request. This is a military order that you are coming back.” We took his weapon away and gave it to the pilot so he could see that we weren't just taking his weapon. We had given it to the pilot. He would get it eventually. Never did. So he gets on the helicopter.
NARRATOR: The problem is, Ric still has business at the camp.
RIC PRADO: We went into camp and it was a mixed atmosphere. There were the cronies of the commanders that knew that the clock was ticking. And then there were the masses that were mostly relieved: “Hey, they're finally doing something about it.”
NARRATOR: Everyone can see a confrontation brewing.
RIC PRADO: I got all the guys’ visual daggers coming at me. I'm going: “Okay. There are a few people here that do not like me.”
NARRATOR: And then Ric spots a junior Contra fighter that he's helped before. The man had needed money for medical treatment for his wife. Ric had decided to pay for it out of his own pocket.
RIC PRADO: Little peasant guy. He was a guerrilla fighter, but he was no rank whatsoever. Well, fast-forward to this event. So I'm walking around the camp and from behind the bushes. I heard this “Pssssst” and it was this skinny guy hiding behind the bushes. And he tells me: “They're planning to kill you tonight. When you go to sleep, they're going to come and try to kill you.”
NARRATOR: One good turn deserves another. Ric thanks the man. But it's too late to leave. The helicopter has departed.
RIC PRADO: We knew that he was right because normally they would always put us, especially the gringo, in the center of the camp because that's the safest part where you have the rings of security around it. They put us in a hut on the outskirts of the camp. So what happened was, as soon as it got dark, we had our meal. They left and I was there with my guys. And, as soon as it was lights out, we crawled out the back window. There was a substantial hill behind us with big, heavy rocks, a couple of hundred yards up. We low-crawled up the thing, set up a perimeter, got our ammo out and we just had to sit it out, and wait it out, and see if they came after us.
NARRATOR: Escaping overland isn't an option.
RIC PRADO: Because us going into the jungle by ourselves would have been stupid. I mean, who's going to find us?
NARRATOR: For a while, nothing happens. A waiting game.
RIC PRADO: I was going: “I'm not going to get killed.” And you do literally switch on and do your job. My job wasn't to sit there and worry about ‘I shoulda, coulda, woulda’. No, my job was: “How do I get me and my guys out of this?”
NARRATOR: And then there is movement.
RIC PRADO: So around midnight it was fully dark. You see guys with flashlights coming into the house with the Hutch where we were at. And I could hear their voices being raised. And they were upset that I wasn't there. They were not there to bring me breakfast at 11 pm. So, my point to my guys was to say: “Look, we don't have a lot of ammo. If these guys start coming up the line here, you do not fire until I tell you. If they were going to come to bite me, I was going to bite him back.”
NARRATOR: But the Contras leave the hut empty handed.
RIC PRADO: So in the morning, we showed up at the camp at first light and went to breakfast just like nothing. We didn't mention it. They, of course, weren't about to ask: “Why weren't you in your hooch last night?” Because I would've said: “How the hell did you know that I wasn't in my hooch last night? Did you go to my hooch? Why did you go to my hooch?”
NARRATOR: And their survival tilts the balance of power in the camp.
RIC PRADO: Now, that gave confidence to the rest of the camp folks. And I was starting to get encircled more by the guys like: “Okay, this is what Major Alex is here to do. He's here to clean up. He survived this, he got the first commander out.”
NARRATOR: A few hours later, the helicopter returns and Ric - Major Alex - is able to exit. The two rogue commanders get their day in court.
RIC PRADO: Later on, we heard through some of our confidential contacts that they had been found guilty and they were executed. This is my understanding. I wasn't there for any of that. We didn't find out about that until later. The camp reflourished and kept on fighting for the duration of the mission. The reason that I went there was because I had the credibility, because I lived and I ate with these individuals five days a week. For over three years, they knew me. I had trained them. I had been in harm's way with them. So I was sent - not as a blunt object, no - I went there on my credibility, built through leadership and partnership. And, the camp went back to normalcy and became a very competent camp.
NARRATOR: After years with the Contras, Ric is eventually moved to other CIA duties. Political pressure to stop US support for the Contras is growing. The hidden hand is no longer so hidden.
RIC PRADO: I was ready to leave because I've been doing it for over three years now. Now we had people pouring into the camps. We had swollen the ranks so the American hand was now obvious. I was very, very emotionally involved and personally involved. You live in camps with people for three years, for God's sake. I mean you’re breaking bread, getting shot at. You can only stay in a place for so long before you're pushing your luck.
NARRATOR: The Sandinista government was eventually voted out of office but their leader Daniel Ortega has made many comebacks. He’s been President of Nicaragua for the last 15 years.
RIC PRADO: I did get to visit during the calm period, and it was an up-and-coming third world country. But it's still, the oppression has come back. Corruption and abuses of power are evident. And I will tell you, my Miskito Indian friend, he told me: “Alex, it's as bad as it was in 1981, the persecution of the Miskito.”
NARRATOR: These days Ric is retired with time to look back on his life.
RIC PRADO: Actually it will be 60 years since I left Cuba. So I know what it is to lose a first country, my first country. And, I have the debt of honor to my new country, to the United States of America. I really believe that God puts paths in front of us and if we pick the right one everything kind of folds in.
NARRATOR: Ric Prado's book Black Ops: The Life of a CIA Shadow Warrior was published in 2022. I’m Vanessa Kirby.
Former CIA officer Enrique 'Ric' Prado is a paramilitary, counterterrorism, and special/clandestine operations specialist, with a focus on international training operations and programs. Mr. Prado is a 24-year veteran of the Agency where he served as an Operations Officer in six overseas posts.